One of the joys of teaching is that I get to have the same conversations over and over again. Every time I teach Introduction to Literature, I get to enjoy watching students slowly come to the realization of just how much information Hemingway can convey in so few words in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Every time I teach Literary Analysis and Research, I am treated to the excitement students share when they finally have a language and framework to talk/write about the social forces they can feel operating in society, but have not yet been given the language and framework to understand them. I will never tire of watching students make sense of what before confused them.
That said, one of the difficulties of teaching is that I have to have the same conversations over and over again. This afternoon, I had two such conversations.
This afternoon, a student came into my office hours and asked me why I don’t assign more papers in my classes. This conversation always amuses me, because the former student in me wonders why someone would ask for *more* work. This conversation always comes after students have not done well on the early assignments, and are looking for a way to improve their grades; the more assignments they can complete, the more chances they have to improve. This particular student did not turn in the first paper, and has admitted to often coming to class without having done the reading. “Why,” I asked this student, “do you think that if I assigned more work, you would have done it?” In other words, if the student is not turning in the few papers I assign, why should I believe the student would get the work done if I assigned more papers?
At the beginning of the semester, I always explain my pedagogy to students: I assign few papers, because I expect students will spend more time on them. Instead of assigning more work, I expect students to spend more time on the work I do assign.* I offer to work with them as often as they need during office hours, and regularly remind them during the semester when the due dates are. But no matter how often I do this, I always have students who come to me – always around midterms and again before the final exam – to ask me if I can assign them more work.**
Today’s student was no different. And as always happens when I have this conversation, the student told me that he does better in classes when he regularly writes down his responses of the readings. So I asked him, “In what way am I preventing you from doing that?” He looked confused, so I told him that if he knows certain practices help him better understand the material and perform better in class, he’s welcome to engage in those practices. And as always happens, the student told me that he doesn’t do those things because I don’t assign them.
A similar conversation I always have – and which I had again today – is the conversation about drafts. Today, a student came to me and asked why I don’t require students to turn in first drafts for papers. I regularly remind students of upcoming deadlines and remind them that I am happy to discuss notes and drafts during office hours, but I do not require students to turn in drafts for credit. Today, I once again had a student tell me that she always does better work – and earns better grades – when she works in drafts, rather than turning in the first draft of a paper. And always, I asked this student why she hasn’t been doing that for this class; and as always, she replied, “because it’s not required.”
The most frustrating part of this conversation is not necessarily that I have it every semester (because I recognize that this may well be the first time the students have had it). The most frustrating part of this conversation is that the students know what they need to do, but they choose not to do it, because that work isn’t explicitly required.
Some will attribute this to laziness. And perhaps some students are lazy. But that’s a cheap answer. In some cases, students are overworked (both in the classroom and off campus, especially those who are working one or more jobs to make ends meet); in such cases, students may not have time to do anything not explicitly assigned. However, in that case, those students wold not have time to complete that work if I did assign it, or they would not have the time to complete it properly.
My suspicion, however – and this is based largely on my conversations with these students – is that many of these students have been trained to only do what is explicitly assigned, and have been trained not to work outside of the explicit parameters of an assignment. This is, as I have seen, a hard habit to break.
The second student today, for instance, told me that she’s used to turning in drafts for her composition classes, but not her literature classes, because her composition professors require her to turn in drafts. When I suggested to her that the skills and methods she learns in her composition classes can be brought to bear on her other classes, she told me that she never thought of that. By the end of our conversation, it was clear that she saw “drafting” as something one does in composition classes, but not something that one does when writing outside of those specific classes.
I am positive that I will have this same conversation again later in the semester (most likely after students get this round of papers back, and then again right before the final exam). And I know I will have it again in subsequent semesters. And sure, I could assign more work and require students to turn in drafts of papers. And that might result in those students doing better work and earning better grades.*** But it won’t address the problem, that some students don’t see that the skills they learn in one class can be employed in other classes, that their education is supposed to be a unified dynamic, and not a series of independent experiences.
Honestly, I place much of the blame for this on what has come to be called “assessment culture,” whereby education is broken down into measurable units that are individually isolated and assessed. Students earn set amounts of points for each unit, and the points are added together for a final class grade. The grades for these various, independent classes are then averaged together for a GPA, which stands as a reflection of the students’ academic achievement.
But in the move toward gathering quantifiable data, we have lost the notion of education as totalizing, as an integral part of the human experience.
“Education” is no longer a long-term, multi-part process, but a short-term, measurable goal.
What do you all do in your classes to fight against this way of thinking? How do you help students see the value of integrating the skills and knowledge learned in their various classes? How do you get them to employ skills learned in other classes in your classes?
*I have the same theory about assigning reading. I’d rather students read fewer works in depth – perhaps reading those works more than once – than read more works quickly.
**One reason I don’t assign extra credit is that I rarely find it helps for students turning in poor work to turn in more of it. Not matter how many D papers a student turns in, the grade averages to a D. I’d much rather students focus on what assignments remain, and demonstrate their ability to improve the quality of their work.
***Those students who do work in drafts always end up doing better work because of it. Always. But if students already know this, why don’t they use this knowledge to their advantage?